'He believes passionately that the liberal left and the media are out to destroy him': A look inside Trump's day-to-day

President Donald Trump speaks about tax reform at the St. Charles Convention Center, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, in St. Charles, Mo. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump speaks about tax reform at the St. Charles Convention Center, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, in St. Charles, Mo. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Published Dec. 9, 2017

WASHINGTON — Around 5:30 each morning, President Donald Trump wakes and tunes into the television in the White House's master bedroom. He flips to CNN for news, moves to "Fox & Friends" for comfort and messaging ideas, and sometimes watches MSNBC's "Morning Joe" because, friends suspect, it fires him up for the day.

Energized, infuriated — often both — Trump grabs his iPhone. Sometimes he tweets while propped on his pillow, according to aides. Other times he tweets from the den next door, watching another television. Less frequently, he makes his way up the hall to the ornate Treaty Room, sometimes dressed for the day, sometimes still in nightclothes, where he begins his official and unofficial calls.

As he ends his first year in office, Trump is redefining what it means to be president. He sees the highest office in the land much as he did the night of his stunning victory over Hillary Clinton — as a prize he must fight to protect every waking moment, and Twitter is his Excalibur. Despite all his bluster, he views himself less as a titan dominating the world stage than a maligned outsider engaged in a struggle to be taken seriously, according to interviews with 60 advisers, associates, friends and members of Congress.

For other presidents, every day is a test of how to lead a country, not just a faction, balancing competing interests. For Trump, every day is an hour-by-hour battle for self-preservation. He still relitigates last year's election, convinced that the investigation by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, into Russia's interference is a plot to delegitimize him.

People close to him estimate that Trump spends at least four hours a day, and sometimes as much as twice that, in front of a television, sometimes with the volume muted, marinating in the no-holds-barred wars of cable news and eager to fire back.

"He feels like there's an effort to undermine his election and that collusion allegations are unfounded," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has spent more time with the president than most lawmakers. "He believes passionately that the liberal left and the media are out to destroy him. The way he got here is fighting back and counterpunching.

"The problem he's going to face," Graham added, "is there's a difference between running for the office and being president. You've got to find that sweet spot between being a fighter and being president."

Trump is more unpopular than any of his modern predecessors at this point in his tenure — just 32 percent approved of his performance in the latest Pew Research Center poll ? yet he dominates the landscape like no other.

Trump is on the verge of finally prevailing in his efforts to cut taxes and reverse part of his predecessor's health care program. While much of what he has promised remains undone, he has made significant progress in his goal of rolling back business and environmental regulations. The growing economy he inherited continues to improve. His partial travel ban on mainly Muslim countries has finally taken effect.

Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, has told associates that Trump, deeply set in his ways at 71, will never change. Rather, he predicted, Trump would bend, and possibly break, the office to his will.

That has proved half true. Trump, so far, has arguably wrestled the presidency to a draw.

'Time to Think'

As White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, a retired four-star general, has labored 14-hour days to impose discipline on a chaotic operation — with mixed success.

The Oval Office once had a rush-hour feel, with a constant stream of aides and visitors stopping by. The door is now mostly closed.

The pace of meetings has increased. Beyond Kelly and Kushner, they often include Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, national security adviser; Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and senior adviser; Hope Hicks, communications director; Robert Porter, staff secretary; and Kellyanne Conway, the president's counselor.

Trump has made significant concessions and craves the approval of Kelly, whom he sees as a peer, people close to Trump said.

He calls Kelly up to a dozen times a day to ask about his schedule or seek policy advice, according to people who have spoken with the president. The new system gives him "time to think," he said when it began. White House aides denied that Trump seeks Kelly's blessing, but confirmed that he views him as a crucial confidant and sounding board.

'I Don't Watch Much'

The ammunition for Trump's Twitter war is television. No one touches the remote control except Trump and the technical support staff — at least that's the rule.

But he is leery of being seen as tube-glued — a perception that reinforces the criticism that he is not taking the job seriously. On his recent trip to Asia, the president was told of a list of 51 fact-checking questions for this article, including one about his prodigious television watching habits. Instead of responding through an aide, he delivered a broadside on his viewing habits to reporters on Air Force One.

"I do not watch much television," he insisted. "I know they like to say — people that don't know me — they like to say I watch television. People with fake sources — you know, fake reporters, fake sources. But I don't get to watch much television, primarily because of documents. I'm reading documents a lot."

The image of Trump in a constant rage belies a deeper complexity.

"He is very aware that he is only the 45th person to hold that job," Conway said. "The job has changed him a bit, and he has changed the job. His time as president has revealed other, more affable and accessible, parts and pieces of him that may have been hidden from view during a rough and tumble primary."

Few get to see those other parts and pieces. In private moments with the families of appointees in the Oval Office, the president engages with children in a softer tone than he takes in public, and he specifically asked that the children of the White House press corps be invited in as they visited on Halloween.

Only occasionally does Trump let slip his mask of unreflective invincibility. During a meeting with Republican senators, he discussed in emotional terms the opioid crisis and the dangers of addiction, recounting his brother's struggle with alcohol.

According to a senator and an aide, the president asked puckishly, "Aren't you glad I don't drink?"

Information Consumption

As the president increasingly recognizes how much Congress controls his fate, Marc Short, legislative affairs director, has sought to educate him by appealing to Trump's tendency to view issues in terms of personality, compiling one-page profiles of legislators for him.

While Trump is no policy wonk, he has shown more comfort with the details of his tax-cutting legislation. And aides said he had become more attentive during daily intelligence briefings thanks to pithy presentations by Mike Pompeo, CIA director, and a deeper concern about the North Korea situation than his tweets suggest.

Graham, once a fierce critic and now increasingly an ally, said Trump was adjusting. But Graham added that at this point in Trump's presidency, "everything's possible, from complete disaster to a home run."

In almost all the interviews, Trump's associates raised questions about his capacity and willingness to differentiate bad information from something that is true.

Even after a year of official briefings and access to the best minds of the federal government, Trump is skeptical of anything that does not come from inside his bubble.

In recent weeks, Trump's friends have noticed a different pitch, acknowledging that many aides and even his own relatives could be hurt by Mueller's investigation. As for himself, he has adopted a surprisingly fatalistic attitude, according to several people he speaks with regularly.

"It's life," he said of the investigation.

From there it is off to bed for what usually amounts to five or six hours of sleep. Then the television will be blaring again, he will reach for his iPhone and the battle will begin anew.